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Stomach Flu or Foodborne Illness?

Stomach flu…again? The grip of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, aches, and an all-over crummy feeling is an unwelcome event for anyone.

But what many people commonly call “stomach flu�? may in fact be foodborne illness. Orange County Environmental Health officials explain why it’s so easy for us to mistake foodborne illness for a stomach flu: “Many of the symptoms are similar. Depending on the bacteria or virus causing the illness, symptoms can include one or more of the following: nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, gastroenteritis, fever, headache or fatigue.�?  That explains why…

Foodborne illness is vastly underreported.

Experts are certain we’re missing the boat on nailing foodborne illness. According to the CDC:

  • For every reported case of Salmonellosis (foodborne illness caused by Salmonella), there are another 29 cases that are not even diagnosed.
  • For E. coli bacteria, that figure is 26. For Campylobacter bacteria, it’s 30. For some foodborne pathogens, it’s over 100.

You get the idea.

The way foodborne illness gets reported is through a specific chain of events: 1) You go to a doctor. 2) The doctor orders microbiological tests. 3) You obtain a definite diagnosis of a foodborne illness. 4) This case is reported to health officials.

When is the last time you went to a doctor with “stomach flu�? symptoms?

Underreporting of foodborne illness is so widespread that public health experts have to apply sophisticated mathematical models to estimate the real impact of foodborne illness on our daily lives.

Foodborne illness symptoms

Foodborne illnesses – symptoms

Just to complicate things, not all foodborne illness symptoms are entirely gastrointestinal. Headache, nerve-related symptoms, sore throat, and even jaundice can be signs of foodborne illness associated with particular bacteria or viruses.  If you want a complete rundown on foodborne pathogens, symptoms, food sources, and food safety tips, check out the FDA Bad Bug Book, 2nd edition.

Bad bugs are not limited to bacteria. Viruses and parasites are in the mix, too. A virus called norovirus is the top cause of foodborne illness, says the CDC, causing 19-21 million gastrointestinal illnesses in the US every year. “You may hear norovirus illness called ‘food poisoning’ or ‘stomach flu,’�? notes the CDC. At the same time, the CDC explains a distinction: “Norovirus illness is not related to the flu (influenza), which is a respiratory illness caused by influenza virus.�?

You ate it when?

To help sort things out, Orange County officials pose this question: If you experience gastrointestinal symptoms 45 minutes after eating at a restaurant, did the restaurant food make you sick? Here’s their answer:

“People often think that when they get sick it is due to the most recent food that they ate. In fact, it is rarely caused by the last food you ate. Depending on which bacteria you ingested, the onset time for a foodborne infection can range from 6 – 48 hours, with some taking as long as two weeks to show symptoms. It is often very difficult to tell specifically which food made you sick.�?

1 in 6 people get foodborne illness every year

The bottom line is that approximately 1 in 6 people get sick each year from food eaten in the United States, according to current CDC analysis. That’s 48 million of us.

Are your symptoms “just a stomach flu�? – or foodborne illness? Orange County officials advise, “Always consult your doctor for diagnoses and treatment options.�?